Home / Politics / Leaking tarps, mold, asthma, and misery: It's more than eight months since Maria hit Puerto Rico

Leaking tarps, mold, asthma, and misery: It's more than eight months since Maria hit Puerto Rico


There are still people living in housing without tarps, and many live in multifamily and apartment buildings that are not eligible for FEMA-funded permanent roof replacement.

When you look at those aerial shots, think of the people who live under those patches of blue. A recent press release from Zimmetry Environmental, a firm in Puerto Rico that “provides property managers with indoor environmental quality (IEQ) testing, consulting and mitigation solutions,” stated:

With over 3 million residents, many people that call the islands of Puerto Rico home live in apartment buildings. These apartment complexes range from modern high rises to small buildings in rural locations. Regardless of the type of apartment building, any significant water damage or prolonged periods with elevated humidity levels can result in the growth of mold indoors. The presence of mold can cause a wide range of health concerns from triggering asthma and allergies to hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP), infections, and even potentially exposing people to toxins known as mycotoxins.
Mold occurs naturally in the environment and can enter an apartment from the outside through open doorways and windows as well as through the outdoor air intakes of the building’s HVAC system. Mold spores can even attach themselves to people, making clothing, shoes, bags, and even pets all vehicles for transporting mold into an apartment. If spores land on surfaces where there is moisture, such as where leaks may have occurred in roofs, pipes, walls, or where there has been flooding or excessive humidity, it can begin to grow in as short as 24 to 48 hours.

I was on the phone yesterday with Daily Kos blogger Chef Bobby Neary (newpioneer) who is currently living in an apartment in San Juan, after the loss of

Paint peeling off the bathroom walls due to leaking roof in Bobby Neary
Paint peeling off bathroom wall in San Juan apartment, due to leaking roof

his home and everything he owned due to the hurricane. His current landlord did not qualify for FEMA funds, has still not received money from his private insurance, and had to undertake temporary roof repairs by paying out of his own pocket. Even with the makeshift repairs, the roof still leaks every time it rains. Bobby walked into his bathroom to take this snapshot of the paint bubbling off the concrete wall as we talked.  

He and hundreds of thousands of other Puerto Ricans on the island face a never-ending battle with mold. Right after Hurricane Maria, Daily Kos blogger Pakalolo wrote, “Mold is blanketing Puerto Rico making it difficult for many to breathe,” pointing out the dangers of Mycotoxins.  

The month of May is Asthma Awareness Month, and what worries me is that given the extremely high prevalence of asthma in the Puerto Rican population, the increase of pollutants like mold is bound to exacerbate the problem.

Puerto Rican children have the highest asthma prevalence in the world. Years of research have not solved the “why.” Let’s look at some of the available data:

Office of Minority Health: “Puerto Rican children are twice as likely to have asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic whites.”

CDC:  Asthma in Puerto Rico

In 2008, an estimated 147,260 adults in Puerto Rico had asthma. Adult lifetime asthma prevalence was 15.2% and adult current asthma prevalence was 5.2% compared with U.S. rates of 13.3% and 8.5%, respectively

In 2008, an estimated 143,080 children in Puerto Rico had asthma. Child lifetime asthma prevalence was 28.9% and child current asthma prevalence was 13.8% compared with the 38 participating states’ rates of 13.3% and 9.0%, respectively

The most recent CDC data (from 2016) is here.

This 2010 article is titled “Puerto Rico baffled by high asthma rate”:

Puerto Rico is a U.S. Caribbean territory where children are nearly 300 percent more likely to have the respiratory ailment than white non-Hispanic children in the continental United States. And this year, Puerto Rico has seen a jump in asthma cases, which health officials suspect might be linked to the heavy rains that have unleashed millions of spores.

The island, with a population of 4 million, already has 2.5 times the death rate stemming from asthma as the mainland, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Puerto Ricans in the U.S. also have been hit hard by asthma, with an asthma attack rate 2.5 times higher than for whites.

Adding to the problem is that Puerto Rican children do not respond as well as those from other ethnic groups to the number one medication prescribed to asthmatics: Albuterol, which comes in an inhaler used to relieve sudden attacks. As a result, several major pharmaceutical companies are working to create another medication, but they are still years away from doing so.

Nearly 30 percent of children in Puerto Rico are diagnosed with asthma, and the rate increases to 40 percent among kids in public housing projects, said Dr. Floyd Malveaux, former dean of the College of Medicine at Howard University.

“Unfortunately, the children in Puerto Rico do have the highest rates in the world,” he said. “Whether it’s more genetics or more environment, we don’t know.”

Back in May 2014, when we had a functioning Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy wrote about EPA efforts in “EPA Working to Help Children in Puerto Rico Breathe Free.”

May is Asthma Awareness Month and I took the opportunity to spend part of the month traveling to several cities where asthma is a problem to raise awareness about this serious childhood illness and the importance of asthma intervention and education.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, I visited the St. Jorge Children’s Hospital and met asthmatic children, their parents and doctors and health professionals who are working to better understand the illness and ways to reduce its incidence. They spoke from experience about the often devastating effects of the illness on people’s lives – family concern and disruption, increased medical expenses and lost days of school and work.

The EPA has actively engaged in asthma reduction efforts in Puerto Rico since the 1990s when the agency funded a study that looked at asthma and indoor air quality. The study found that measurable improvements could be made in reducing emergency room visits and missed days of school through asthma education and intervention. Since 2005, the EPA has focused on training health care providers, educators and parents about asthma triggers. The EPA Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program has reached 92,000 students and faculty in 431 schools in Puerto Rico. The results have been a 50 percent reduction in missed school days and a 50 percent improvement in symptom-free days.

I also toured one of the eight communities along San Juan’s Martin Peña Canal where a health impact assessment by the federally funded Pediatric Health Specialty Unit at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York recently revealed that the asthma rate for children under five in this community is twice that of the same group throughout the rest of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans overall have the highest asthma rate of any other ethnic group and an estimated 15.6 percent of Puerto Rican children suffer from asthma compared to just over 9 percent across the U.S. In addition, asthma is the main cause for the hospitalization of children in Puerto Rico and it is among the five most common causes of doctor visits.

Environmental conditions in the communities surrounding the 3.75 mile long Martin Peña Canal are contributing to the high incidence of asthma. Polluted floodwaters and damp conditions bring mold and pests, which exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions Rising sea levels and more intense storms resulting from climate change will only make the flooding worse. Household pest killers and certain cleaning products further contribute to the problem. These facts make it critically important to reduce flooding in the Martin Peña Canal communities and to educate families about the environmental factors that trigger asthma attacks and actions they can take to reduce them. EPA has been working closely with federal and Puerto Rico government agencies and the community-based organization, “Corporacion del Proyecto ENLACE del Cano Martin Peña,” to reduce the flooding. EPA has supported the communities through the Urban Waters Federal Partnership and various environmental justice, environmental education, water quality and wastewater infrastructure projects.

Gasp! She talked about climate change. How much would you like to bet that the current EPA is not following through along these lines?

While on the topic of the environment, I happened upon this post and query titled “The Next or Maybe Just an Ongoing Part of the Disaster in Puerto Rico”:

“It is estimated that ingestion of plastic kills 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year”

How do I say this quickly so you don’t just get bored and read something else? We’re facing an environmental disaster from plastic pollution. Do you remember seeing the blue tarps covering the roofs of houses in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria? Well, many of them are still there and they’re coming apart, spewing their poison everywhere.

Plastic tarps were not designed to withstand the harsh Caribbean sun for months on end. I never would have thought though that they could turn to confetti and dust. We’ve had a few unusually gusty days, and that little bit of wind was enough to show the danger that the fish, manatee, and sea turtles are facing.

I had hoped to save what little I could of my house. It took weeks to get tarps to cover my roof, and almost everything in my home was destroyed. It’s been seven months, and I’m no closer to rebuilding my house now than I was before. The cost of materials has skyrocketed. Skilled labor is scarce. There’s very little I can do at this point other than wait.

After seeing what the tarps are doing, I took them down off my house. I’m looking for information about where I can take them for recycling. I’ve found plenty of articles online stating that tarps are recyclable, but I haven’t been able to determine if the municipal recycling centers here in Puerto Rico are accepting them. Please leave a comment if you know anything about this.

I had no answer.

The fact that some people are getting roofing via advertising is worth a double take. Check out “Brands Are Sponsoring Emergency Roof Tarps in Puerto Rico, Turning Paid Media Into ‘Aid Media’”:

The conditions in Puerto Rico may be out of the wider public eye, but many are still awaiting basic necessities, like shelter or power. Thousands of families in Puerto Rico are still awaiting FEMA tarps more than six months after Hurricane Maria made landfall. In response, the Outdoor Advertising Association of Puerto Rico (OAAPR) launched the AidMedia project, which allows brands to buy ad space on top of houses while simultaneously providing a protective shield against the elements. When companies purchase an ad through the initiative, the funds go toward creating a billboard-strength tarp to cover a residence.

There is something very chilling about getting a roof in return for selling a product to those who have the money to be flying overhead on an airplane.

There are many volunteer and community groups who are working hard to replace failing tarps with real roofs. One such group, Team Rubicon, is founded by veterans.

While the statistics are daunting, keep in mind that Team Rubicon is directly impacting those devastated by the storm on a daily basis. We are protecting families from the next rainfall, and from the mold, helping them regain a sense of normalcy in their everyday lives. Families now have a roof over their heads where they can feel safe, sleep, and begin rebuilding their lives.

Team Rubicon is continuing to refine its model. We are working with our general contractor to improve roof designs. We are partnering with GAF, the largest roofing company in the world to receive building materials, and technical assistance for our contractors. We are building Puerto Rico back better.

Team Rubicon will continue to work with our NVOAD partners and coordinate through FEMA, utilizing the VALOR Program to assist those in need. We will explore different fundraising opportunities to potentially expand our current operations, and we will continue to scale contractor hiring to put as many roofs over families before the start of the 2018 Hurricane season in June and beyond. Team Rubicon is committed to doing all we can in support of Puerto Rico’s recovery from hurricane Maria.  

And of course, I saved the best for last: We are actively planning to utilize our greatest asset, our Greyshirts, in supporting Puerto Rico’s recovery. We have team members on the ground sourcing work and determining the best path forward.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Puerto Ricans have served in all branches of our military with valor. In honor of those who served and sacrificed, and those who are still serving, you can show support for Operation Rebuild Puerto Rico here.

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